From the crowded concourses of the Georgia Dome to the Broad Street watering holes of Athens, from Brasstown Bald to the Okefenokee, Georgia Bulldogs fans had looked to Saturday’s SEC Championship game for renourishment.
They had lived off the fat of past glories for 30 years and those who arrived at the Dome came with a desperate hunger.
Afternoon turned to night, the Bulldogs rode every extreme known to football and then fell exactly five agonizing yards short of a historic victory.
The classic nature of Alabama’s 32-28 win — it was not decided until the Bulldogs’ Chris Conley caught a tipped pass on the Alabama 5 with the clock breathing its final second — did nothing to cushion the fall for Georgia people. It, in fact, made the landing all the rockier.
“What a massive disappointment,” said long-time Georgia fan Mike Brooks as he was slowly making his way out of the Dome. “We didn’t just lose. This one cut deep.”
Georgia coach Mark Richt’s grim assessment afterward echoed the sentiments of all who watched and played with dreams of the Bulldogs claiming their biggest victory since winning the 1980 national championship.
“It hurts. It hurts a lot,” Richt said. “We prepared hard all week, all season, all offseason to get back to the Dome and win it (the Bulldogs lost the SEC title to LSU a season ago). We came up short against an outstanding team. We played well. They played well. The clock ran out.”
It is expected that Alabama will move on to play Notre Dame on Jan. 7 for the national championship. Georgia will move on to an as-yet undetermined bowl against an undetermined opponent.
“I think it’s a crying shame if Georgia doesn’t play in a BCS bowl,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban.
The elephant in the room proved too large to slay. The reality of a punishing ground game that churned out 350 yards was too much for Georgia to overcome.
“We had that I-will-not-be-denied attitude today,” Saban said.
Georgia had the lead, lost it, had it again, lost it again, got it back and ultimately lost it with 3:15 to play.
It did everything but win. It returned a blocked kick for a touchdown. It dinged the proud Alabama defense for 394 yards (265 through the air). It drove 80 yards in just less than a minute before running out of time at the doorstep to victory.
This one will sting the Georgia faithful for years to come.
Long after time expired, Tobi Olagunju sat staring into space as confetti rained down on Alabama fans. He is a member of the Spike Squad, dedicated UGA fans who cover themselves in body paint and don spiked shoulders pads to cheer for Georgia.
“We did a fantastic job,” said the 20-year-old sophomore. “At the end of the day we’ve got to accept the outcome. We got robbed. It was our game.”
So now what?
“Now, it’s time for finals,” he said with a sigh.
Some 70 miles away in Athens, Cody Pfiester, a 19-year-old Georgia freshman from Lexington Ky., went walking the streets afterwards, trying to cope with such a painful result.
“If you could take my heart out and then rip it in half, you would have just what happened to me,” said Pfiester. “I think every single Georgia fan here feels the same way. It is heartbreaking.”
The pregame scene around the Dome was a clear-cut clash between the Haves and the Wannabes of college football’s proudest conference.
Alabama fans strutted about in their national championship tees from some year or other. Many were topped in the houndstooth hats that spoke of other titles from the Bear Bryant era. Their Georgia counterparts arrived with far less imposing silk screen work and had to draw more upon faith than fact.
Atlanta’s Steve Smith showed up before 6 a.m. Saturday to claim a prime tailgate spot just north of the Dome. At his side was his 2-year-old bulldog, Dooley, chewing on an elephant plush toy. When a huge Alabama contingent set up shop nearby, erecting a massive crimson party tent, Smith pulled up stakes and moved to a friendlier spot.
“It was getting a little too adversarial over there. We’ll do our talking on the field,” Smith said.
“I’m 110 percent sure we’re going to Miami (and the national championship game),” he said, brimming past the point of mathematical possibility.
The implications of this game were such that they strained the seams of family. Fayetteville’s Kathy Gloer procured one precious ticket to the championship, at the resale price of $400, and toyed briefly with gifting her husband with it.
Upon reconsideration, there she was outside the stadium Saturday, wearing her son’s Bulldog jersey — he was a walk-on defensive back — and carrying a sign she planned to unfurl inside.
It read: “Behind every great man is an awesome woman that steals his SEC ticket and leaves him home alone!”
“And I missed a funeral and a wedding to be here, too,” she added.
So high were hopes over Jim Pey’s tailgate that they were discussing travel plans to Miami for the championship game.
Afterward, Pey, from Duluth, could barely speak.
“It’s very emotional around here right now,” he said and, yes, tears were involved.
Another Georgia fan was overheard pregame speaking to his wife on the phone, warning her about the variables in his schedule.
“If we win, I’ll see you Wednesday,” he said. “If we lose, I’ll see you at 10 o’clock tonight”
In time, a caravan of Georgia people formed to make a sad drive home on this long, hard night.
Staff writers Greg Bluestein and Steve Visser contributed to this article.